Harlem 2008: Election night in another time

Published Nov 06, 2012 04:48pm

A Persian-language pin designed as part of an Iranian American group’s efforts to promote Barack Obama in 2008. It says “oo ba ma, ma ba oo” meaning “He (is) with us, We (are) with him”.

Night-time in Harlem, November 4, 2008. People from all over New York were gathering in this neighbourhood as election results became clear. And not just from New York. Obama was going to be the first African-American president of the United States and Harlem was the celebrated hub of African-American life and culture. Songs have been written about it. The elections were going to be a historic moment in world history. And here in Harlem, you would get a chance to be part of that history.

We walked out of our building and turned a corner. There before us was 125th Street and Broadway, full of people celebrating. Hundreds of people. Black and white, if you cared to note. And us.

So much has been written about how that exact moment of history unfurled in that exact spot — so much inspired, poetic stuff — that there is little point for me to describe that scene in yet more words. Suffice it to say that the speeches were thankfully over, and people were laughing and dancing and marching – I should stop right about now.

“Yes, we can! Yes, we can!” people chanted. Or was it “did”? News reports say “Yes, we did!”, but I don’t remember noticing the distinction at the time, as words got lost in the resounding cheers. “Yes, you can!” I would respond, wishing to participate, but not in inapt ways.

“O Ba Ma! O Ba Ma!” chants echoed around us. Ok — now what?  “(Ya) Hussein, O Ba Ma!” I tacked on, on a silly whim, only to find my friends skitter away in laughing remonstrance. After the fuss made over Obama’s remarkable ancestry during the Republican campaign, shouting out his full name into that New York night, in a manner reminiscent of Muharram processions, felt rather heady; a sort of double rebellion. The boys appeared not too keen to join in. We were here from Karachi and Peshawar on a scholarship, and it would be stupid to do anything to scuttle that. Men had to more careful, anyway, bearing in mind the kind of questions immigration officials could put to them right in the middle of a friendly chat: “So… where’s Osama?”

So, why the potentially rash show of flippancy at such a momentous occasion? Why not just chant what everyone else was chanting? I could blame it on the time of the night, on being in the midst of such sheer intoxicated — and intoxicating — revelry. That’s what people say about us South Asians (and possibly also about others): that we don’t even need the aid of alcohol to sing and to dance, and, most importantly, to shoot off our mouths.

Reflecting over that moment, I think the urge went much deeper than that. It was still about appreciation. Appreciation of a historic victory. But appreciation whilst keeping in mind the boundaries of historical experience. And this at the very moment that, what seemed like, the entire world enthusiastically celebrated the triumph of tearing down barriers and erasing boundaries.

America was in tears and Africa jubilant. Europe was in the grip of Obama-mania and Asia was also showing solidarity. Obama’s electoral victory was being interpreted as a universal triumph, a true testimony of human potential.

So why couldn’t we, who were there in the eye of that wonderful, wonderful storm, just overcome our inhibitions and shout along with everyone else: “O Ba Ma! O Ba Ma!”? Perhaps because this one really was not our war. For us, who had been neither perpetrators nor victims of racial injustice in a relevant historical context — though, we may still have plenty of other sins to atone for — should the quality of excitement at Obama’s victory be the same mixture of “jubilation, relief, joy, vindication and love” as that experienced by those all around us?

These things can, however, be hard to explain to people who are determined to try to understand both your major anguish and your petty sufferings through the prism of ‘a person of colour’. I recall remarking to my Indian professor that the race/ethnicity form in certain US universities is the most vulgar official document I have ever had to fill out in my life. However benign its intentions may be, it forces you to think seriously about arbitrarily divisive classifications you have never had to ponder over before. And between the euphemisms and the particularity of perspective inherent in terms like Caucasian, Asian and Middle Eastern, a person from a place like Pakistan can be left feeling quite confused.

A limited ability to share a sense of historical vindication was one barrier to our entering whole-hardheartedly into the spirit of that particular US election. The second was that - we were alienated. And we stoked those feelings by huddling together that first winter in an aggrieved, shivering little group filled with such anger at ourselves and at others. Filled with anxiety over events at homes, over ambivalent feelings about the Swat operation; filled with guilt about accepting State department scholarships at a time when drone strikes were increasingly becoming an issue and the culpability of our own government was not quite so clear. At ‘Af-Pak’ (how we detested that term) conferences at various Ivy League universities, we would see utter quacks posing at Pakistan ‘experts’ and would become agitated at the tenor of discussion, while our agitation, combined with an excess of polite consideration for the views of hosts and elders, would render us inarticulate and unable to launch a coherent critique.

This wasn’t the 1960s where we could just tour America, marvelling at and rejoicing in its various freedoms, its friendly citizens and its wonderful system of checks and balances. This was the year 2008 and anti-Americanism was not only at an all-time high, it had also become an established fact for over a decade. I can remember arguing with my schoolteacher about the redeeming merits of America, if any, in 1997. “But at least they take care of their own people”, I appealed for a softening in stance during a discussion about white elephants, the first time I had heard the term. “Listen, if you want to like America, go right ahead!” said my teacher in teasing challenge. My teacher, who was not even Muslim but a Pakistani Parsi.

There appeared to be no such room for equivocation in 2008. As eager as ever to make friends of all kinds and from all places, we sometimes became insular, reluctant, and perhaps afraid, to explain ourselves and our anxieties to others, preferring instead to closet ourselves with compatriots equally concerned about events back home. Perhaps, this was also a function of reaching New York right before Ramazan started, and getting caught up in the halal food circuit thereafter. Over meals of greasy halal fried chicken at a Swati-operated shop in Harlem, which we would prefer infinitely to the more African variants of halal food also available in Harlem, we would argue with Pakistani friends (of comparable class and interests, two things which do tend to be connected somehow) incessantly, and to little avail, over divergent aspects of Pakistani politics. The discussion would often become so heated as to put those same friendships at risk, to the fascinated horror of non-Pakistani friends. Amidst all these activities, we would tend to give up the chance to explore American places, American music, American culture and, especially, American politics and the American media. We would opt to spend that time in our rooms, poring over Pakistani blogs and newspapers and watching Pakistani talk shows, trying to resist the danger of a foreign worldview tainting our minds or a foreign accent tainting our English (our own accent being the neutral one, of course), for, after all, we had to remain fit to show our faces upon return.

Even if it had been our specific intention to do so, we could not have shut our hearts and minds to what was happening all around us that year. All the talk of great hope and change, Obama appeared charming, urbane, educated and also culturally adept. You could not remain blind to these qualities; although I’m sure some in America tried very hard to manage it that year. Perhaps, we would have liked to have such a person leading our own country, though in that case he may just have succeeded in arousing our hopes too much, also. But what should he mean to us as the Democrat candidate? Surely not something all that different, as indicated by his campaigning speeches, for all that he played his cards closer to the chest in true Democrat fashion. I mean, why make a song and dance about it? Better to go about business as usual, without naming enemies as enemies and without attempting to give the war (which should apparently never have been called a war, in the first place) any sort of grand and public name…

The sad part of saying goodbye to Bush was that we would no longer get to be entertained by those gaffes he had become famous for. But, if for nothing else, we could, for the sake of American friends, who were praying for freedom from those years of embarrassment and ignominy over the havoc wreaked in the lives of millions around the world during Bush's tenure, be glad to see the back of him.

And there it stopped. There it had to stop.

In the summer of 2008, shortly before we were due to depart to the USA for graduate studies, an American representative from our sponsoring body gave us a speech regarding how to go about in the States in ways which could help us avoid being on the receiving end of strange looks and — more serious kinds of trouble. While remarking that we would be present in the United States for the interesting juncture of presidential elections, she cautioned us to just watch how democracy plays out in America without necessarily expressing our own political preferences, since foreign opinions about national affairs are naturally greeted with suspicion and likely to prove counter-productive.

Another point presented in the, no doubt kindly meant, speech advised Pakistani males about the appropriate amount of physical distance to maintain from the average American male, so as to avoid invading his personal space. A demonstration was accompanied by the information that people in Pakistan generally tend to maintain too exaggerated a distance from people of the opposite sex and not enough distance from people of the same sex. While the latter remarks may appear impertinent to those who do not opt to view them as educational, the earlier ones do contain a measure of sense. An important point to remember is that the US presidential elections are just that: the US presidential elections. There seems to be greater awareness of this, this time round, even among Americans themselves.

That night in Harlem, I hadn’t even kept a camera with me. Not even on my mobile phone, a strange situation for a tourist/visitor. All this was only four years ago, yet it seems like another time. In 2012, anti-Americanism has by no means disappeared from Pakistan. It has, perhaps, taken on a less heated, more exhausted form, though, its edges dulled by routine use. I think if it had been 2012 that night instead of 2008, I might have summoned up enough enthusiasm to act like a tourist if nothing else and to try to capture the event on film. Well, one can never say…


The writer is a researcher and literary translator. She lives in Karachi and works at the Herald.



The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.


For more special coverage on the US Elections including exclusive blogs, features, comments, analysis and multimedia from correspondents around the world, go to: US Elections 2012 In-depth

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

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Comments (4) (Closed)

Nov 07, 2012 07:27pm
But Obama is considered a black man by most white Americans. Racism is alive and well in America. In the latest election, he is elected as president with the overwhelming support of minorities (blacks, hispanic, asians, etc.) in the country. Every thing else being the same, if Obama was white like typical white Americans, he would have no difficulty winning by a much large margin. If you know, 70 percent of white Americans voted agaist him.
Nov 07, 2012 01:40pm
So when are the minority in Pakistan going to regain their self esteem?Pakistanis settling overseas demand equal rights.When is Pakistan going to do the same to their minority?
Cyrus Howell
Nov 06, 2012 10:33pm
"...of the “jubilation, relief, joy, vindication and love” as that experienced by those all around us?" . Because it was a long time coming. It raised a lot of colored folk's self esteem and made them feel more a part of America and not excluded after all. A lot of people had been working since the 1960's to see things change, and when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated it was a low point.
Cyrus Howell
Nov 06, 2012 10:23pm
In 1978, I was having a drink in a bar with an Indian neurosurgeon near Northwestern University Hospital on East Superior Street. . One of the things he said to me was, "Americans don't even know we South Asians have arrived here. They won't know until we are given a nickname like all the other minority groups have been given.". . He seemed to be looking forward to it. Splitting the proverbial hair here Obama is not technically an African-American president. He is, as was pointed out by Morgan Freeman, a "mixed race" president; his mother being a "White" woman.